After 2019 saw home runs fly out of stadiums throughout the league at a record-setting, even alarming rate, Major League Baseball initiated an effort to find out why. At the Winter Meetings in early December, the league announced the findings of its quasi-independent investigation of the baseball.
They needn’t have gone to so much trouble. As far back as the first week of the season, Baseball Prospectus author Rob Arthur used data collected by Statcast (the league’s tracking technology, which showed decreased drag on the ball right out of the pitcher’s hand) to demonstrate that the ball was more aerodynamic than at any previous point in the game’s history. By midseason, astrophysicist Meredith Wills published research at The Athletic documenting the physical changes to the baseball that contributed to its more aerodynamic behavior. When Rawlings, which MLB now owns and operates as a subsidiary, switched to an automated drying method for the covers of the balls, it led to lower seams, which led to less drag on balls in flight. That, in turn, led to the ball carrying farther. These are issues that first arose, in some measure, in the second half of the 2015 season, but 2019 stands out as a new and sharp upturn in flight distance and reduced drag.
When the league published its findings, they largely matched those laid out by Arthur, Wills and others. Having the imprimatur of the league itself, however, makes the release of the information especially notable. Equally notable: The league made clear its intention not to make the significant changes that would be required to alter the status quo. The study attributed a substantial share of the increase in home runs to batters changing their approaches and swinging for the fences. League executives demurred when asked whether they would undo the changes that led to the ball’s increased carry, or at least tighten production specifications. The committee that conducted the study made several recommendations, but the most newsworthy one the league actually promised to enact was to minimize ball-to-ball variation through tighter quality control.
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It’s clear that commissioner Rob Manfred believes that the best way to move past the controversy and mistrust stirred up by the Year of the Home Run is to be honest, but not forthcoming — to identify the source of the change, promise to have learned from the confusion it caused, and treat it as the new normal. For fans, that is undeniably an improvement on 2019. At least they know what to expect. It’s important to teams and players, too, as they make decisions about how best to go about winning ball games in 2020. Evaluating talent and adjusting game plans is much easier when all aspects of the offensive environment are clearly understood and predictable.
For the game itself, however, the implications of that course of (in)action could be enormous. Manfred has fought to improve the pace of action throughout the league, with particular emphasis placed on reducing events that might feel like non-action to casual fans: strikeouts and walks. Over the last few seasons, however, the shares of plate appearances ending in one of those two outcomes has risen to an all-time high.
The aerodynamic ball feeds that phenomenon. Batters are more eager than ever to get the ball in the air because they’re being nicely rewarded when they do. Pitchers are not only working harder than ever to miss bats because of the punishment that awaits them when they fail but also working more carefully because pitches that used to be very difficult to hit for extra bases now seem troublingly mashable.
This season, MLB will implement small rules changes meant to move the game along a bit more smoothly and increase the frequency with which balls are put in play. Those changes, however, will fail to make a dent if the current trends in player development and instruction continue. Teams see hitters without power as essentially disposable, and guys who show promise but have below-average power are often asked to re-engineer their swings and approaches to generate more. A ball that flies as far as it did throughout last regular season will exacerbate that because of the reward for hitting it hard in the air.
Ultimately, the questions the league faces are ones of legitimacy and integrity. It was fun to see the Minnesota Twins hit a record-setting 307 home runs in 2019, but some of that joy was dampened by the fact that three other teams also reached a home run total that would otherwise have set the single-season team record. Gleyber Torres and Pete Alonso, phenoms from each of New York’s teams, combined for a thrilling 91 home runs over a season during which they became quick-dry superstars, but some 58 players hit at least 30 bombs. (The previous record for 30-homer guys in a season had been 47, set in 2000, at the peak of the Steroid Era.) The league and its fans love the numbers that give baseball history texture and depth; the aerodynamic ball threatens the meaning of those numbers.
More important, MLB itself owns Rawlings and operates the factories where the balls are made. It was the league’s decision to purchase the company, to take greater control over the production of its core product. Now, it must assert that it can actually attain enough control of that process to justify that choice. MLB has an obligation to be transparent about those efforts and a significant amount of self-interest in doing so, too. The less reason fans, teams, the players’ union or the media have to doubt that the league is telling the whole truth, the more the public interest in games will grow. This is also an opportunity for the Commissioner’s office to show good faith to the players, in the runup to crucial collective bargaining negotiations, by making the fairest and most earnest efforts possible to keep them in the loop about a key issue in the baseball workplace.
Home runs are fun, and if it weren’t for all the extra home runs generated by the aerodynamic ball in recent seasons, fans would still be grumbling about the historically low scoring levels the league reached in 2014. Pitchers keep getting better, even as they struggle to reliably command breaking stuff with a ball they characterize as slicker and harder to manipulate, and batters can’t gain the same magnitude of advantage from new information. The fact that the league is keeping the ball more or less the same is, on balance, good news, and it provides the clarity that was sorely lacking over the previous few years. Too many mysteries remain, but in the century-and-a-half of professional baseball, the game has shown a knack for mysteriousness. No matter how much we learn, we can always learn more, and sometimes, learning a great deal can only raise even bigger questions. For now, it’s just good to know that the ball is (probably) not going to radically change all over again right away.